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About the Story
Mike Stanvinchi is dead. Juniper, who was in a polyamorous threeway with Mike and his spouse, Roger, must navigate her relationship with the surviving partner. But grief isn't always easy. . . Help her navigate it in the few days during and after Mike's funeral
66th place - 27th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2021)
Number of Reviews: 6
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While I don't inhabit any of the same communities as the author of this piece, that hasn't stopped me from being touched by their games previously. This one, however, didn't grab me at all and I didn't enjoy it. And the weird thing is that grief is present in my home at this moment unlike it ever has been before. My mother-in-law died recently and from what I've observed of my grief, but mostly of my wife's grief, it looks absolutely nothing like this. That is by no means to say that the grief portrayed in this story is not valid, just that I couldn't relate to it. This story, which is a companion story that features the same characters as the author's other IFComp 2021 game (which I did enjoy), is mostly a cycle of cooking and/or eating, sex, and the more traditional characteristics of grief. And the sex scenes are explicit, which isn't usually something I want to read in any work of IF, but interspersed amongst otherwise crippling grief just felt weird to me. I know the title of the piece is "Weird Grief", but it was just too weird for me. Again, that's my personal take, your mileage may vary.
This piece was written in only three days, which is somewhat impressive, but it also shows. There were numerous typos. Again, despite all of the above I might have given it three stars, but it hardly had any choices to make. That's a big thing for me, even in otherwise very linear games. I can only remember three screens that even had two hyperlinks on them. I also wasn't the biggest fan of the font or the fact that it was centered justified on my tablet, which made it hard to read all the dialogue.
Weird Grief took me a little less than an hour to read. It is a pretty straightforward story that doesn't have any puzzles and very few choices. It is told from the perspective of a person who has lost a friend and must provide comfort for the deceased's partner, as well as find comfort of their own. Much of the story is conversation between a close circle of friends as they deal with grief and try to find ways to help each other through several days of mourning. It did a good job of giving me some sense of how difficult getting through a time like this could be. I found it to be sad yet hopeful, because even though the characters had gone through a tremendous loss, they still had each other and seemed willing to do anything for one another. I especially like the character narrating the story, Juniper; they were the one I was most concerned for. I had some moments of discomfort where I wondered if (Spoiler - click to show)Juniper's self-worth was too closely tied to Roger's needs. On one hand, Juniper seemed to only do what they were comfortable with, but I still got a strange sense that there was an unequal power balance (I understand that this was a difficult time for them both, but especially for Roger, and he may not have been entirely himself; yet, some of the things he said and Juniper's reactions triggered my suspicions. I do believe that the three central characters of Mike, Roger, and Juniper had a relationship whose dynamics I did not entirely understand, and that they only wanted the best for one another. I think I what I am trying to say is that the writing was strong enough that it got me to reflect a lot about this character and kept me apprehensive about their well-being). This game shares characters with another story by the author titled "The Dead Account." I played "Dead Account" first, but afterwards wished I had gotten to "Weird Grief" before reading the companion piece.
(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)
This one lived up to its name for me, for a couple reasons that are more idiosyncratic and one about the way it’s written. I’m definitely glad I played it, but didn’t find it as emotionally resonant as I wanted it to be, despite how well-observed and grounded it is.
Starting on the idiosyncratic side: it was uncanny to realize this was a companion game to The Dead Account, which I’d played much earlier in the Comp – the main cast of Weird Grief are the friend and family group of the holder of the eponymous dead account in the previous game. I suspect this is the reverse of the ideal order, since Weird Grief is first in time and it also fleshes out the characters who show up only as screen-names in The Dead Account. Oddly, Weird Grief doesn’t go into as much detail on what exactly happened to Mike, the dead person, withholding information in a way that didn’t have much payoff for me. I suspect linking the games more explicitly, either by suggesting an intended order, integrating them into the same file, or shifting the way information is presented to provide analogous exposition no matter which is done first (though of course that would be hard!), might have been a good choice.
The other idiosyncracy in my response is that I’m unfamiliar with the subculture that takes center stage here – the protagonist is a furry who’s in a polyamorous relationship with the dead man and his widower – which is fine, but I sometimes felt at sea when trying to understand the norms around the relationship. Juniper, the main character, lives in a different city from Mike and Roger (the widower), and an invitation to move in is treated as a big deal, making it seem like the connection was relatively new or less formal. But she’s also specifically called out as their “third” at the funeral, putting her on a different level from another character who’s also present and had been a sexual partner for the couple.
My confusion about Juniper’s role and expectations tied in with the way she’s written. I didn’t find that she had a lot of interiority, or had a lot of direct feelings about Mike’s death (beyond a single admittedly-heartwarming anecdote that’s told a couple different times, and several reminiscences about sex). Partially this is the nature of protagonists in choice-based games, where room is generally made for the player to put their own stamp on the character. But here, this meant Juniper felt primarily like a lens for Roger’s grief.
This focus extends to the sex scenes – as the blurb warns, they’re here and they’re quite explicit. This sort of thing isn’t exactly my cup of tea, and I have to say that when I’ve experienced deep, soul-crushing grief, sex has been pretty far from my mind so there wasn’t much personal resonance. But I can see how for these folks, sex would be a source of comfort and bonding in a hard time, and definitely understand the artistic imperative not to draw a curtain over what goes on between the three character. Anyway putting all that aside, I felt like Juniper was sidelined in favor of Roger in these sequences too: in the first one, I don’t think she has an orgasm, and in the second, she’s more viewer than participant as the other two characters have sex. I assume this is intentional, and meant to reflect something about Juniper’s relationship with Roger, but once again my takeaway was that Juniper’s subjective experience was secondary to the piece, which feels like a missed opportunity given that she’s our viewpoint character.
The writing is strong throughout – the dialogue rings true, and I liked the focus on the logistics of the grieving period, albeit these folks ate too much fast food (there are lots of typos though, including one “double click passage to edit” error and an awkwardly double-nested parenthetical). And while there are few choices, they feel reasonably impactful. So the supporting pieces are all strong enough – I just wanted Juniper, structurally the center of the piece, to loom a little larger in the story.
Highlight: The characters are all winning, with Tammy, Mike’s sister, especially came through as a positive presence.
Lowlight: once again I played this choice-based game with Henry napping on me, but due to text size and other formatting issues it required a lot of scrolling when reading in portrait mode (I was going to say it’s hard to play one-handed, but that could be misinterpreted!)
How I failed the author: As I said above, this milieu is pretty foreign to my experience so I worry I’m missing, or misinterpreted, many of the social cues or other indications of relationship dynamics.
This sort of entry does seem to get hammered in IFComp because it is, well, linear, and also because the characters may be part of a social community we just don't understand, though we don't want to look down on others. But it touched a nerve with me in a good way. So I found it valuable. But it's exhibit B in why I find it hard to give stars to fellow IFComp entries. (Exhibit A is that I feel like I'd be knifing a fellow writer in the back if I said nice things but then gave a below-average score.) Exhibit B is that it is hard to compare two very different works, and we know the stars are just a rating, but it's all we have to go on. And complex ratings are too obvious.
But there is a lot to like for an entry that placed so low. First, it links up with another entry from the author's. I played this together with The Dead Account and recommend you to the same, with WG first. They are good on their own but sum nicely together well, and neither takes too long to play. The Dead Account revisits the events of Weird Grief and provides some sort of closure to things Weird Grief left open. I appreciated Weird Grief not explaining everything and letting me speculate, and I was satisfied with how The Dead Account tied things up.
Second of all, the title. It says a lot in ten letters. Grief should be grief. And it hurts to be called weird in any context, with or without justification. But there's the immediate implication that some people's grief is seen as less than normal people's grief because it's "weird," when the truth is, if you don't have a huge social circle to start, losing anyone hurts that much more. I also remember hearing "That's a weird thing to be upset about" over far smaller things than the death of someone I care about. Sometimes it was followed up by "But I didn't call you weird!" So the title gives that feeling of being accused, or being lesser. Which is pretty upsetting, when normal grief is filled with cliches and so forth. It also says: sure, you can grieve, but don't be TOO weird about it, okay?
It brings back memories of snarky teens whispering behind others' back. Does the weird person know we're whispering? If not, it's weird to be that clueless about themselves and others. If so, it's weird not to do anything to, you know, become more acceptable. In this game, the weird grief certainly comes off as much more acceptable than normal grief. The people who call themselves normal seem not to realize that the grief they call weird deserves to be more because, well, it's harder to find friends if you're not normal, so losing a friend hurts more. I hope this isn't too harsh on normal people, but I think it accurately describes too many people who, sadly, lump the world into Normals and Weirds. Perhaps they even have weird friends! But not that weird.
It also brings back memories of a Life in Hell cartoon. If the name doesn't ring a bell, the author, Matt Groening, went on to make the bold move of creating a prime-time cartoon show called The Simpsons and later Futurama. One of the characters was Binky. And he had scary thoughts, like, “if people start laughing at your funeral, do you have to sit there and take it?” And the pastor in the strip said “Well, he lived an interesting and useful life, sort of.” And WG brought that back again. It was easy to picture the deceased family's liking him "despite all that" and his friends actually, well, knowing him better.
As for knowing him? Well, someone named Mike dies at 33. We aren't told why until The Dead Account. Was it COVID? A rare disease? A hate crime? Drugs? (Note: this felt like it would've been the easy choice, with maybe some discussion of the "normies" saying "well he should've known better, why didn't you stop him" and his friends protesting.) But the author avoided any details, and I think that's effective, because at the end, we realize it doesn't matter, and Mike, like anyone, doesn't deserve to have people pry if they didn't care enough during his lifetime. Or, well, his family take backhanded potshots at him and his friends at his funeral.
And while my lifestyle isn't as different from the norm as the characters in WG, I certainly have envisioned a funeral full of backhanded compliments from my relatives. This flared up with the Coronavirus. If I died and my family looked at what I did, what would I have to show? I realized I'd never shared any of my text adventures with them. I think it'd get in the way. Perhaps they'd give condescending approval, but God forbid I sit down to explain it to them, or they take time to figure it out. And I realized people who listed family members as testers or inspiration … well, I couldn't relate. I realized there were people in the community I was closer to than I was to my immediate family, and I wasn't that close to them. But I still got a lot from them. And yes, I was at a funeral where Perfectly Normal people behaved Perfectly Normal and the result was shocking. At least the people involved (including the pastor) waited until the funeral was over to agree: yeah, that eulogy was BS!
And for Mike, that seems like the best possible case, which would be sad indeed. I'm also struck by how Mike's family may say “OMG we loved Mike” but on the other hand, they don't want Mike's inner circle to be able to say the same thing.
I got something different out of it than most people on the discussion board topic that flared up. I'd rather not have sex scenes in games I play, but it seemed appropriate here. The people need to do what they can to move on, and they don't have to worry about things like "what would your family say?" Perhaps they won't do so very well at first, or they're not sure what to do, but they deserve to try. And I know I've had ways of dealing with loss that worked, and people who nitpicked them, well, they showed who they were.
WG was cathartic for me. I recalled many other things, like the sort of awful no-fun fantasies of people I disliked, people I should've liked on paper, people I hadn't seen in a long time, showing up to my funeral and remembering the worst parts. With time I've been able to mix some humor in this, and it's because of positive life experiences and reading stuff like WG that reminds me that my fears are ... well, normal, no matter what my Overall Weird Quotient may be. I remembered reading on Facebook that a middle-school classmate I learned about on Facebook had died, and how that compared to having no grief over a teacher I disliked, one I should've liked on paper, who died and that was a different sort of weird grief, only it wasn't weird at all, and in fact it helped me move on.
I took an hour to reflect after Weird Grief, and I was able to bend some bad things--people laughing at me, fearing people laughing at me--not weird grief, but potentially weird regret and weird fears--into something funny. No, Weird Grief isn't intended to be funny, but it helped me find humor, and to me, that's more effective than straight-out comedy.
This game gave me an interesting a different perspective on what it would be like to be grieving a romantic partner with someone who was also that person's romantic partner. Additionally, the player character and her friends are part of the furry community. This is ignorance on my part, but I didn't realize that fur suits could bring a level of psychological comfort to the people who wear them. I guess I thought it was more like role-playing. I liked learning about polyamorous furries through this game.
The writing dragged a little in describing endless cooking and going out for meals. I would have liked some choices about what to make or how I felt when partner slept in so long that my pumpkin pancakes went cold. There were some choices about whether or not to have sex and how to have it, and those choices did affect the narration, but I'm not sure if they affected the ending.